Finding the Middle

21 Oct

“All I am saying … can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” ~John Holt

It’s been my experience over the past seven years of speaking with parents about our school that they either think it is too permissive, with all the freedom students are given, or they think it is too strict, with all of its rules and responsibilities. It seems that half the parents lean towards telling their kids what to do all the time and half lean towards being completely hands-off and letting their kids run wild. I know that all of these parents are well-meaning and just want what’s best for their children. After all, why else would they be seeking an alternative education model? But I often think to myself, “Where’s the middle?”


Supporting a new student in JC.

I tried to address the first of these extremes in my blog post Freedom Revisited, where I explained how letting kids do what they want all day doesn’t necessarily produce entitled, little slackers. This time I’d like to address the other extreme – the parent who thinks our school is too harsh with its huge law book and its big, mean judicial system that metes out sentences.

I get it. My husband and I have always practiced positive discipline at home. Although we set high standards of behavior, we have never punished our kids. When my daughters act out at home, something that happens less and less as they get older, we seek to connect with them first and then talk it out. They usually just need some quiet time alone with with one of us, help communicating with each other, or something to eat.

At school, on the other hand, things are different. They’re practicing being independent and learning to live within a diverse community. This means understanding and respecting other peoples’ boundaries and learning to express their own without Mom or Dad being there to ease the way. Of course, they will make mistakes and that’s when they might encounter the school’s judicial system, which may involve some form of a sentence, called a “consequence” at our school.

Now, given many people’s own experiences of being sent to the principal’s office or being punished by their parents, I can see how they might imagine our judicial system to be a shameful, heartless process. Punishment in an authoritarian model, which is often arbitrary, can indeed be quite damaging. Consequences determined by peers in an egalitarian environment, on the other hand, is a completely different ballgame.

First of all, students are an active part of the rule-making. Each of them has the power to create, abolish, or modify any existing rule at the weekly school meeting. Second, although there is always an adult on the judicial committee (JC) panel, the students themselves run it and have the most input. And they do so with incredibly sweet amounts of compassion, patience, and support. Third, all school members, students AND staff, are expected to follow the same rules. That right there says to the child, “No one is above you. We are all equal.”

All of this makes JC one of the most fair, respectful, and empowering ways to deal with discipline and conflict that I have ever encountered. So why do some parents still find JC so uncomfortable? I think it all comes down to the fact that they still view children as authoritarian adults do. Yes, they are kinder and gentler, but they still don’t really trust kids. It’s hard to let go completely. And it’s even harder to trust kids when we ourselves were never trusted. But trust is at the heart of everything that happens at our school and maybe that’s why some things feel uncomfortable.

Children are trusted at our school because everyone believes they are competent. Imagine what it feels like for a child to be trusted in this way? To feel so competent? They are competent in knowing the rules. They are competent in weighing the risks when choosing to break them. And they are competent in dealing with the consequences of their actions and learning from them. They are also competent at gathering information, determining whether a rule was broken, and then handing out a fair consequence based on the experience and age of the rule-breaker.

A child who is treated as competent eventually becomes so. They also become incredibly responsible and mature. I love seeing the five and six-year-olds confidently skipping about the school and unhesitatingly speaking their mind even among older students. I know that they feel competent, they feel safe, and they feel powerful. And I’m willing to trust that feeling.


It’s All About the Process

2 Oct

“Children are not our own art products to be turned out well, but their own life work in continual process.” ~ Jan Fortune Wood

A few weeks ago, I ran into a mom I had met back when our kids were toddlers. She asked about the school and said, “I have been following you all on Facebook and I just want you to know that I LOVE Sudbury!” Then she paused and with concern in her eyes, “So, have your daughters found any interests yet?” I cringed inwardly, but smiled and replied, “My 9-year-old is taking piano lessons and my 6-year-old is into horses right now.” Her eyes relaxed and, as if trying to reassure me despite my choice of schooling, she exclaimed, “Oh, that’s great! They might end up working in those fields. You never know.” Because I like to pretend I am “normal” sometimes, I changed the subject.

To be fair, this mom is more enlightened than most. At least she didn’t say, “Well, that’s nice but when will they ever learn calculus?” I’m sure she would have listened to me had I had the energy to explain more at the time and I think she would have deepened her understanding of the Sudbury model. Since then, however, it has been on my mind. Had this mom asked me about my daughters’ interests a few months ago, my response would have been “dancing and Minecraft.” A few months before that, it would have been “dolls and fancy handwriting.” I wonder if she would have been worried.

And this brings me to the point of my blog post. I’m not worried about what my daughters pursue, or what they don’t pursue, because I know it’s all about the process.

HorseMy youngest daughter will probably move on from her current horse phase. (And my bank account would certainly appreciate that!) When she does, I won’t feel bad that she gave it up or feel like it was a waste of time, because I know how much she has learned. The learning that I am talking about has nothing to do with horses. Again, it’s all about the process. She had to find and choose a horse ranch that would give lessons to such a young student. Of course, I helped her with searching on the internet, making appointments, and taking her to each place, but she drove the entire process and made the final decisions. After her second lesson, she decided that she wanted to learn more about taking care of horses, so she spoke with her instructor. Now she uses some of her riding time to brush the horse down and clean out its hooves. Lately, she has been talking about finding another ranch where she can do more care-taking like feeding and washing. It will be interesting to see where that will lead her, but for me, the most valuable part is how she is learning to determine her own goals and learning how to express them to get what she wants out of her lessons, whatever those lessons or experiences may be.

The same goes for my oldest daughter. After playing around with her keyboard at home for years, she recently decided to take formal lessons. She meets with her piano teacher once per week at school and is really enjoying it. I try to stay out of her way, but every once in a while her piano teacher catches me and can’t wait to tell me how well my daughter is doing and how fast she is learning. It doesn’t surprise me nor does it make me particularly proud. I know my daughter does well in whatever she puts her mind to. That’s her process. She dives into something completely without any pushing or prodding. And she always has her own motivation for doing things, which she may or may not share with others. I have seen her teaching piano to other students at school and even writing her own songs, which she meticulously keeps in her manuscript book. I know that once she has achieved her goal, whatever that might be, and has gotten what she needs from the experience, she will move on to the next thing and she will completely devote herself to that.

Whether they are playing with dolls, building a house in Minecraft, making up dance moves to the latest Gwen Stefani song, or inventing new ways to write their name, the content doesn’t really matter. They are learning so much in the process of pursuing their own interests. As they get older, their interests will change and their goals will become bigger, and they will continue to learn what they need to achieve those goals. This is hard for most people to wrap their heads around. Traditional schooling is all about content, pre-determined by someone else, and how to stuff as much of it as possible into the minds of children. But that content, which changes constantly, can be learned anytime, especially when it’s actually meaningful to the learner. The process, on the other hand, gets hard-wired into us fairly young and becomes the filter through which we learn anything new.

My daughters’ Sudbury school is the perfect place for them to refine their process. It does that by giving them the freedom to choose their own content all day long and the time and space to figure out how to get things done. I think this, and not necessarily a focus on specific, adult-approved content, is what will most help them achieve success in the future. After all, success is a process too!

Freedom Revisited

4 Jul

After having read my last blog post, an old family friend recently emailed me the following question:

So, with all the freedom in your school, how do kids adjust to the fact that in real life they can’t just be “free” and do whatever they want whenever they want?

I get this question all the time, but I didn’t expect it to come from this person. Having always been supportive of me and my school, I knew that she wasn’t trying to be critical. She was really trying to understand. But the fact that she, of all people, didn’t already understand was confusing to me. I’ve always seen her as free – an independent, adventurous, and confident woman who traveled the world and was always eager to learn new things. Even now that she is retired and travel isn’t so appealing, she hikes in the wilderness, teaches Spanish, and volunteers as an EMT. For me, she is the epitome of a person who is free, responsible, and empowered – what Sudbury schools are all about.

So after receiving her email, I spent most of the day thinking about what her question really meant. Obviously, her picture of what “freedom” looks like in my school was skewed. It finally dawned on me that she was defining “freedom” through her lens of traditional schooling, an authoritarian system in which “freedom” means something totally different – mostly centered on evading control and surveillance. Below is my attempt to refocus that lens.

Freedom does not mean license.

Freedom at our school doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want. The message, “Your freedom ends where the next person’s begins,” is constantly reinforced via the judicial system and the lawbook. One of the most common rules that new students break is:

No one may infringe on anyone’s right to exist peaceably at school, free of verbal, physical or any other type of harassment.

Students who come to us from more traditional schools are often surprised by how fiercely our students, even the youngest ones, protect their own right and respect others’ right to exist peaceably. There is no need for a teacher (or any other adult) to watch over them.

Freedom comes with responsibility.Running staff election

Because adults don’t watch them, our students know that freedom is a gift that they have to protect and use wisely. This is reinforced by another important rule at our school:

Everyone is responsible for the general welfare of the school, through actions that contribute to preserving the atmosphere of freedom, respect, fairness, trust, personal responsibility, and order that is the essence of the school’s existence.

And we actually hold students (and adults) accountable for not living up to this rule! For example… Leave a mess in the art room, you get written up. Fail to intervene when you see a little kid doing something dangerous or when you see someone being bullied, you get written up. Misuse school property, you get written up. Act inappropriately when out on a field trip, you get written up. Although this may seem harsh to some people, students begin to clearly see the connection between freedom and responsibility and they begin to take pride in behaving responsibly. And some value their freedom so much that they choose to take on increasingly important roles in the running of the school.

Freedom does not mean entitlement.Cleaning up

Finally, freedom doesn’t mean that you always get what you want or that things always come easy. One student said it perfectly:

“If you want something to happen, you have to be willing to do it yourself. You can’t just put an agenda item on school meeting and expect someone else to take care of it.”

Another student’s school sleepover had just been cancelled because she refused to follow through on all the steps required. You can imagine how disappointed everyone was, but what a huge lesson! New students will often try to get a field trip organized or try to purchase something with school funds (after all, you can do ANYTHING at this school!) and they are surprised when they fail. Most of them pick themselves back up and keep trying. When they finally succeed, they start to walk a little taller with their chin slightly higher. I love seeing that transformation in them.

To some people, all of the above might seem overwhelming or intimidating, especially to a young child, but my experience is the exact opposite. Even though they are held accountable for their actions and the adults aren’t necessarily holding their hands or entertaining them, students love being at school. They feel safe and powerful and responsible for their community and their environment. Imagine if more adults in our society felt this way.

My Visit to Sudbury Valley School

28 May

I have visited Sudbury Valley School four times over the past seven years. Each time, I have tried to describe what it felt like to be there, but my words have always fallen short, like there was some secret that eluded me. During my first three visits, I was more focused on learning the how’s and why’s of running a Sudbury school. Although I enjoyed connecting with students and staff, I still had an agenda. Well, I’m going to give it another shot, because this most recent visit was different. This time, for one day, I let myself just be.

As I walked down the long driveway to the main building on the fourth day of my visit, I passed a Sudbury Valley Schoolstudent I had met a few days earlier. He was carrying his guitar and I asked if he was going to play. He said yes and told me that I was welcome to come up to the barn and listen to his band practice. “I’d like that,” I replied. “See you soon.”

As I continued on, I saw three students out in the middle of the lawn doing yoga. There was a student in the playground working really hard to swing high and a group of students playing knock-out on the basketball court. There was another group sitting at the picnic table talking and laughing. Everyone was fully engaged, at ease with themselves and each other, and happy.

I started up the steps to the building along with a few young students. There was no hesitation in their step; they knew exactly where they were going. When one little girl reached the top of the steps, she looked back at me and said, “Hi.” And then she quickly skipped away before I could say, “Good morning.” Once inside, I headed towards the coat room through the kitchen and ran into a few staff members who greeted me with warm smiles but no expectation on their faces. After chatting with them a bit, I headed back up the drive towards the barn. I smiled at the sight of the three students on the lawn who had now moved on to doing silly dance moves. They were cracking up at each other and I thought to myself, “Ah, freedom.”

At the barn, I was greeted by a few students playing a video game. I watched for a bit and asked some stupid questions. I was probably annoying and certainly distracting, but the gamers were patient with me. Then I heard music coming from one of the nearby rooms. I ducked into the room next door where I could watch the band through a window. One player waved. Two others looked my way and nodded. The drummer turned around and smiled. The band continued playing and I was soon lost in the music. My mind and my body were completely at ease and I felt very happy. Not only was I free, but I felt totally accepted. I felt like I belonged.

And then it suddenly hit me – everyone here belongs. That is the secret! And this is where words fail me. Words are too shallow to describe this feeling. Imagine a place where everyone is free to do their own thing and find their own way without judgment, without pressure. Imagine a place where everyone feels safe enough to take on the enormous task of figuring out who they are and what they really want to do. That feeling is so deep at Sudbury Valley that no one talks about it, like fish who can’t describe the water around them.

I always return home inspired to create that feeling at my small school. I have no illusions, however – it’s hard, it takes time, and it requires constant vigilance. I am in awe of the founders and staff members at Sudbury Valley for holding such a space for so long. I hope that one day I can be as wise and as strong as they are.

Five Lessons on Learning

18 Nov

My daughters go to Sunset Sudbury School, a school that allows them to follow their own interests all day long. There is no teacher telling them what they must learn, nor is there anyone who assigns grades to their work or administers tests to measure their progress. When I first tell other parents about my daughters’ school, naturally, their first question is, “But how do they learn?” I used to launch into a description of organic learning and how reading and math are easily learned when a child is ready… blah, blah, blah. But the truth is my daughters are getting far more important lessons on learning that will carry them throughout the rest of their lives.

1.  Learning is something you actively seek, not something that happens to you.

When she was four years old, my oldest daughter told me that she wanted to learn to read. After trying to help her a few times, I realized that what she really wanted was for reading to magically happen to her. I resisted the temptation to help her after that and repeatedly told her that she would learn to read when she was ready and willing to do the work. A few months after her 7th birthday, she discovered phonics and began sounding out words and asking people to sit with her as she read out loud. She became a fluent reader in about nine months. For me, the important thing was that she completely drove the process; no one at school pushed her along nor gave her gold stars for her progress. As a result, my daughter knows that she has the power to learn anything she sets her mind to without waiting for someone else to show her the way.

2.  Learning is not separate from living.

My daughters will often play at school all day long and then come home and work on academics. It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Mom, what’s six plus three?” from my five-year-old who is checking her work, or “Mom, how do you spell ‘restaurant’?” from my eight-year-old who is working on a new story. On their days off from school, activities like going to the beach or going to the planetarium have equal value for them. My daughters don’t label one activity as “fun” and the other as “learning,” and they never resist opportunities that might seem a little too much like traditional school. Most importantly, whatever they are doing, my daughters are always curious and always asking questions. For them, learning is an on-going, integral part of living.

3.  Play is serious work.

Don’t get me wrong. Playing is always fun for my daughters, but they also take it quite seriously. While rushing out one morning, my five-year-old yelled, “Mom, wait! I have to get some extra clothes!” She and her friends were working on a dance routine and they had all agreed on what to wear. Another time, I found my eight-year-old gathering materials for her next role-playing game, in which she and her friends might stay in character for days. My daughters and their schoolmates expect each other to be prepared for the next day’s play. Because their school doesn’t place more value on one activity over another, my daughters take their play quite seriously and work hard to make it meaningful as well as fun for all. The line between play and work doesn’t really exist for them.

4.  Whatever your age, you are as capable as anyone else.

Students are not segregated by age at their school. Instead, students naturally group themselves throughout the day according to their interests. For example, an 11-year-old might be playing cards with a 4-year-old, or a 7-year-old might be showing a 13-year-old a new video game. There are also jobs at school that students and staff must fill to ensure that the school runs smoothly. Any student can fill these positions, provided they do a good job, regardless of age. However, in School Meeting recently, we voted to restrict an important job (JC Clerk) to students age 8 and above. When my five-year-old first heard about the motion, she was quite upset. She enjoys being JC Clerk and is quite confident in her ability to do it well, so she came to School Meeting to lodge her complaint. The motion still passed, but School Meeting included a clause that allowed for younger students to be voted to the position on a case by case basis. My daughter truly believes that she is just as capable as any older student, albeit with a little less experience and a little less skill, and I love that their school reinforces that belief.

5.  Trust yourself and follow your own definition of success.

Because their school doesn’t assign grades and doesn’t group students by ability, my daughters don’t necessarily compare themselves with others and they don’t mentally create a pecking order among their peers. Instead, they see each individual, including themselves, as a bundle of talents and quirks. When a well-meaning adult recently praised my 8-year-old daughter on her reading skills, the adult asked if her little sister had started reading as well. My daughter replied, “No, but only because she’s not interested yet.” My daughter intuitively knows that she and her sister are each following their own path on their own schedule and that one person’s process is not necessarily better than another’s. Their school gives them both lots of room and encouragement to trust themselves and to constantly define what success means to them.

I feel so lucky that my daughters go to a school that provides them with these lessons every day. I love their attitude towards learning, their trust in themselves, and their respect for others. I know that all of this will serve them well in a fast-changing world that will require them to be creative, self-motivated, and on-going learners. And I trust that these lessons will help them find happy and fulfilled lives.

When Students Have Real Power

24 Sep

“Who’s the principal here!? I’m the principal here!” ~ Six-year-old student

I was sitting in the computer lab at school the other day trying to fix one of the slower machines. A student (I’ll call him “Z”) sat at another computer playing a video game. A few of the boys gathered around to watch Z play and began joking with him and with each other. The mood seemed light, so I didn’t pay much attention. A few minutes later, the mood turned serious and I overheard the boys talking. “Oh, man. Now we’re going to have to go to JC (judicial committee).” “Do you think we’ll get ‘no screens’?” (“No screens” means no use of technology with any type of screen on it, a fairly serious sentence.) Curious as to why Z was no longer there, I asked, “What happened?”

One of the boys quickly responded, “We were chanting ‘loser’ and then Z lost the game and we all laughed. He got upset, so now he’s writing us up.”

“But we were just joking,” replied another.

A discussion ensued on how all people are different and how an appropriate joke to one person is not always appropriate to another. “Then what am I supposed to joke about?” came an earnest reply.

“Sounds like that’s something you need to think about,” I answered in my most non-preachy voice. Upon Z’s return, the mood was lightened again by the boys laughing over whose farts were smellier. Z went back to playing his game and I got back to my work. Then one of the boys came over to Z, looked over his shoulder, and enthusiastically said, “I hope you win this time!”

I witness these types of exchanges at our school all the time, but this one stood out for me because it provided such a clear contrast to what happens at most other schools. A few days earlier, my friend and I had had a conversation about her recent experience in middle school, including all of the drama. It brought up lots of images from my days of conventional schooling: kids taking verbal jabs at each other while the teacher isn’t paying attention, the on-going competition over who can do and say the most outrageous thing without getting caught, and the hours of boredom that are relieved by these few moments of “fun.”

As I listened to the stories of my young friend, I kept thinking, “Wow, that would never fly at my school.” Now, I wouldn’t say that our students are never mean, or rude, or annoying to each other, but I do know that this kind of behavior isn’t tolerated for very long, if at all. Sooner or later someone gets tired of it and writes it up. Students at our school have real power and they know it. I often struggle to explain how different this experience is for them compared with most other schools where the adults are in charge. I think it’s something one needs to experience for him or herself, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

Some students holding a mock JC.

Some students holding a mock JC.

1)      Students don’t feel the need to hide from the adults. Students at our school aren’t trying to evade adult control or supervision like at more traditional schools. The boys in the computer lab that day chanted “loser” with me sitting right there. Sure, I wasn’t really listening, but they unhesitatingly told me the whole story when I asked. Because they don’t see me as the “enemy,” we were able to have a genuine conversation with no fear around it. In this case, I was able to offer some advice and inject some perspective into their thinking.

2)      Students are empowered to set their own boundaries. At most other schools, there is a strong culture against “snitching,” so students often accept harassment and do their best to stay out of the line of fire. There really is no concept of “snitching” at our school. Z did not get up from the computer to go “tell” on the boys; he simply walked over to the write-up forms and filled one out. He doesn’t have to appeal to some authority figure to solve his problems. HE is powerful and he can trust that the Judicial Committee (JC) will handle things fairly.

3)      Students have time to work on relationships. Had the episode with Z taken place at a more traditional school, the teacher may have handled it by getting the boys to settle down and then getting them back to the lesson. There may not have been time for the boys to immediately begin smoothing things over by joking (especially not about farts!). At our school, students aren’t busy with adult-directed activities; they have lots of opportunities to make interpersonal mistakes and to learn from them.

4)      Students take responsibility for the school culture. With no one person claiming to be the authority at our school, students quickly realize that they are ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Z took care of himself that day in the computer lab, and I’ve often seen students taking care of each other. For example, a newer student was recently annoying another while she was trying to eat lunch. An older student stepped in, “Hey, that’s harassment. You have to stop when someone tells you to or you can get written up.”

5)      Students are really free to follow their own interests. Even at schools where the curriculum includes more choices, students are still vulnerable to peer pressure and adult coercion regarding those choices when the adults are in charge. After writing the boys up, Z went back to playing his game (and losing) without fear of the boys teasing him again. Students at our school feel safe to really pursue their own interests because they have real power and they can feel it.

Little Scientists Can Teach You A Lot

11 Sep

Two students were in the science lab this morning doing “experiments” with vinegar, baking soda, corn starch,Scientists dish soap, food coloring, and who knows what else. They looked quite serious with their safety goggles, beakers, and test tubes. Soon a handful of inspired younger students rushed up to me and asked if they could be certified to use the lab equipment. They stared at me patiently as I read the rules. And then they nodded their heads vigorously when I repeatedly emphasized that it was everyone’s responsibility to clean up.

Since a few of the students are fairly new to the school, I thought it would be nice to do some activity with them so that they could get comfortable with the materials in the lab. I asked them if they would like to make cornstarch goo and they all agreed.  Soon there were oohs and aahs coming from the new little scientists along with lots of giggles. A few more students joined in and I almost became overwhelmed trying to contain the mess. There was goo all over the table and on the floor, cornstarch tracks on some of the rugs, and a pile of dirty bowls, dishes, and utensils. Thankfully, after about twenty minutes or so, the students were ready to move on. I sent them to the hose outside to wash their hands, which were dripping with goo, while I stayed behind to clean up.

Now, my story could end here and it would all be about how wonderful I was to engage these young minds and teach them some science (the properties of non-Newtonian fluids) while having lots of fun. Well, this is not the best part of the story…

The cleaning took me longer than expected, but I was enjoying the quiet break. Suddenly all the young scientists returned to the lab and began their experiments anew. “Oh, no. This is going to be a disaster,” I thought to myself, but I kept my head down and tried not to pay too much attention. I was determined to finish up and leave before the lab was trashed again. Well, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The two original students quickly took charge and guided the younger students. They suggested combinations of ingredients and showed them things like how to use a straw to make bubbles. When one of the younger students spilled their solution on the floor, an older one dashed off and reappeared with a towel to put under her feet. There were also many gentle reminders about being careful, keeping things in order, and cleaning up after oneself.

The thing that surprised me the most, besides the fact that no one ever asked for my help, was how serious and calm the entire scene felt. I would occasionally hear proud exclamations of, “Look what I did!” or “I make the best experiments!” but overall everyone was very focused. After almost an hour, one of the younger students, who had just been certified, came to ask if I would check the lab. She wanted to know if they had cleaned up properly. I was startled to find that the lab was spotless! All the equipment had been washed and put away and all of the surfaces had been wiped down. Even the floor was dry. I couldn’t contain my delight. “Wow! It looks beautiful!” The student stood beaming at me, not so much at gaining my approval but more with a look of “I told you we could do it.”

Kids are amazing when you get out of their way. They are often capable of so much more than we expect. I guess I was the student today.